A talented team helmed by award-winning producer Sky Conway, including actor fan favorites such as Walter Koenig, plan to embark on a television pilot next year for John E. Stith’s MANHATTAN TRANSFER, the Tor Books novel about the kidnapping of Manhattan by aliens.
We asked John to write a series of short pieces to chronicle this thirty-year journey.
Here is part four.
After Davis Entertainment left the MANHATTAN TRANSFER producing team in 1994, my contacts at Allied Stars kept voicing optimism. They were obviously behind schedule, but they were paying periodic option payments that demonstrated a good degree of seriousness.
By 1995 there was still no deal in place for a director or overall funding, but some progress did happen. We signed an additional contract, to make me a technical consultant for the film. More money was earmarked but not yet paid. I was told Ron Shusett loved the project and that the writing team wanted me to be in Los Angeles when they did the writing.
This phase continued to be sprinkled with cool plans, but now some worry began to creep in. Some of the option payments were late. On the upside, they were just late, not skipped. And my film agent negotiated late fees. Significant late fees.
I had made the leap to full-time writing around the time I started work on MT. I’d been coming to a crossroads in the engineering company I worked for. In my old department, business was diminishing, partly because of the halt in underground nuclear testing, and partly driven by business shifting into a leaner and meaner mode. In parallel with that, I contributed to a major business proposal in a prior area of expertise, the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex. A new, very large software development contract was up for re-compete. When we won it, I was offered a key management position, one of four group heads reporting to the contract head whose team would number in triple digits.
The job would have been grueling as we spun up a large, new business area, and the job location would be across town instead of a mile from my house. It also suffered from the fact that it was not writing. It would mean a bigger, stable paycheck. More responsibility, and a larger group to lead. But writing won out.
The downside of going into writing full-time too early, though, was that for several years the annual writing income fell a bit short of the needed commitments. So I started accumulating debt.
The good news was that in May 1995, the MT film seemed even closer. I learned that my main Allied Stars contact had even more enthusiasm for the project than did Dodi Fayed. The new plan was that they would form a new company funded by significant investors and would have the money and autonomy to make the MT film without having to go to a studio. Within the month, my agent negotiated a huge replacement contract that was, amazingly, pay-or-play. That meant that regardless of whether or not a film got made, I would be paid. Not only that, but the minimum fee was mid six figures. Coupled with escalators that would give me a tiny percentage of box office, the contract was worth over a million dollars. And it was dependent on no outside factors.
Patience was paying off. Or so it seemed.
By August 1995, I was told they could start writing the big checks “tomorrow.” I received additional smaller checks and more late fees. In October the producers said they wanted to sign a first-look deal with me, meaning they would get the first shot at any new material I created. They said the deal would furnish me a significant fee, plus a small production company and two assistants. I was now to get the big check in November. For sure.
Much of 1996 was in the mode of bouncing between “The check should be written tomorrow” and “We’re not sure how long it’s actually going to take.”
At this point in the fall of 1996, I couldn’t wait any longer. I went back to work in the engineering firm.
In November 1996, the word was the producers would give me a large check in December and the rest by February. For sure.
Parallel tracks started opening up. On the existing track, the producers told me they were continuing to work hard and were making progress toward starting the new company and paying me what was owed under the contract. At the same time, they told me they understood full well that they were currently in breach of the contract and that they would understand if I was forced to accept other deals that might come in. If MT got scooped up, they would buy the rights to REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS, which they also loved. In the same period, an ex-employee of the production company approached my agent and started a dialogue. He warned us that, based on his past experience, the original production company would never come through. And he wanted to option MT.
When we found out his offer was for a zero-cost option, we said no. The original production company continued to express strong interest, but they stopped making progress payments. And they stopped making late fees.
Time slowed down as I was back to an 8-5 job. In 1997, my original film agent left the business. Early that year, the original producers told me, “Big check in two weeks.” In May, it was “August for sure.” This roller-coaster experience was like reading the lottery numbers and thinking, “I’m rich! No, wait, that’s seven, not a two. Oh, right, it is a two! Yes, I’m rich!”
RECKONING INFINITY, my eighth novel, came out from Tor Books in April 1997. It’s a giant kick to have a new book out, but the pleasure was diminished by the never-ending aspect of the MT film journey.
And then came another milestone. On August 31, 1997, Dodi Fayed died along with Princess Diana in the car crash in Paris.
I was assured by the producer working for him, the one who had been my primary contact all along, that plans for the new company would proceed.
Later that year, I had a new film agent who started approaching other people with the book. The ex-Allied Stars producer again approached us with a zero-cost option and my new agent said no.
While my first film agent turned into a big fan of my work, the new agent was in the more stereotypical mode. Her approach seemed to be guided pretty strictly by how much money was for sure, which is understandable. She did find a couple of people who really liked the book, though, and other possibilities started to open up. At one point James Cameron was reportedly reading the book.
Late in 1997, the ex-Allied Stars producer upped his offer and said he had a talented mini-series director interested. I told the agent I would accept the terms and left it to her. This whole process was painfully teaching me patience whether I wanted the lessons or not, so I waited until February 1998 to ask where the contract was.
It was then I learned that the miniseries director had lost interest when he didn’t get a quick deal. My film agent explained to me then that she had slow-rolled the offer because it was low.
Not to worry. By May 1998, the original producers told me they sent eight people to Geneva to close the deal for their financing and they should get their money (and therefore I should get my big check) by August.
To be continued.
Copyright © 2023 by John E. Stith
John E. Stith is the author of REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS, a Nebula Award nominee, MANHATTAN TRANSFER, and numerous other novels and short stories. His works with Ace Books and Tor Books have been bought by the Science Fiction Book Club, optioned for film, and translated into many languages. He has optioned feature-film screenplays and has sold to television (Star Trek). Find him at www.neverend.com. His latest novellas are TINY TIME MACHINE and TINY TIME MACHINE 2: RETURN OF THE FATHER from Amazing Stories. His latest novel is PUSHBACK, a mystery-suspense novel. and a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. In 2024, look for TINY TIME MACHINE 3: MOTHER OF INVENTION, and his new SF novel, DISAVOWED, both from Amazing Stories.
To be on John’s list of occasional writing updates, visit http://eepurl.com/bGL4kj.
John’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/john.e.stith
The Facebook page for the streaming series is https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=61552675967552 .
This story so far:
Part 1 In the Beginning https://amazingstories.com/2023/11/manhattan-transfer-the-motion-picture-in-the-beginning/
Part 3 The First Offer https://amazingstories.com/2023/11/manhattan-transfer-story-03-the-first-offer/